20 August 2018
The Turnbull Coalition Government didn’t really have a great deal to lose during five by-elections last month. It didn’t hold any of the seats where the by-elections were taking place, so any loss wouldn’t have made a difference in terms of seat numbers in Federal Parliament. But the results of the by-elections, which were dubbed the “Super Saturday” because of how there were on the same day, have seemingly sent the Coalition into a state of panic.
Certainly I didn’t expect much in the by-elections. I’d felt that the by-elections probably would come and go, and leave people wondering what the fuss regarding them was about. This was the case with some of the by-elections. But in at least one other instance, there’s been a massive reaction.
The Labor Party held four of the five seats where the by-elections took place last month. Indeed the Coalition didn’t bother contesting two of those seats. Holding the last seat was a crossbench MP who got elected largely because of the popularity of another figure not of Coalition or Labor stock.
The by-elections came about because of four MPs having been deemed ineligible for when they contested the last election, in 2016, as a result of questions about dual citizenship. Another MP quit for personal reasons.
There were concerns about voters would react to Labor regarding dual citizenship, because while this was causing politicians from other parties to disappear from Parliament after this saga broke around a year ago, Labor was adamant that none of its people had problems with dual citizenship, and that all checks were done before the 2016 election. But with Labor people having been caught out earlier this year, Labor looked dishonest. And with many voters still not warming either to Labor or its leader, any loss in these by-elections would’ve stung Labor.
Leaving aside the two Labor seats that the Coalition didn’t contest, the by-elections were in seats that the Coalition lost in 2016. There was therefore interest in how the Coalition would fare, particular as opinion polls have put the Coalition behind Labor for some time since the last election.
As expected, though, Labor easily held the two seats which the Coalition skipped, namely Fremantle and Perth, both urban seats in Western Australia.
The Labor-held seat of Braddon, in western Tasmania, looked like a close contest going into the by-election, and it appeared too close on the night. Labor ultimately held it, though there was hardly any swing.
There was big interest in another seat, Mayo, a provincial seat in South Australia which the Coalition lost in 2016 to Rebekha Sharkie, who ran in those days under the banner of popular South Australian politician Nick Xenophon and was now running almost without his influence. The Coalition had always held Mayo since its creation until 2016. The questions surrounded whether the Coalition could retake the seat with a candidate whose father had long it before, or how Sharkie would fare when effectively standing on her own two feet – with all due respect, Sharkie’s party looks less visible without Xenophon’s presence. In the end, there was a swing to Sharkie, who’d narrowly won in 2016, and now the seat is fairly safe for her. She’ll probably hold it for a very long time.
But there was a massive reaction in the last seat holding a by-election, Longman, an outer urban seat in Queensland. Here there was a decent swing to Labor, which wouldn’t have meant much if not for a bigger fall in the Coalition primary vote, only softened because of preferences flowing well to the Coalition.
With three by-election defeats, one of them including a swing against the Coalition of some note, you’d expect that these by-elections would leave Malcolm Turnbull stung. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2015, Turnbull hasn’t fared well among voters, at least in the opinion polls. They’ve long been pointing a Coalition defeat when the next general election comes. But the size of the swing in Queensland, where the Coalition has quite a few marginal seats, has made Coalition MPs panic.
Lately we’ve been seeing a revolt of sorts against Turnbull. His leadership looks less secure as a result, though I don’t see any credible alternatives out there.
Labor would be rubbing its hands with glee in the aftermath of the by-elections, which could’ve damaged it. The by-election vibes look like hanging around.